Men's College Basketball National Player of the Year Midseason Rankings
It has been said repeatedly for the past two months that there are no elite favorites in men's college basketball this year, and the same can be said when trying to make sense of the national player of the year race.
Usually by this point in the season, there is an obvious front-runner. Last year was Zion Williamson. In January 2018, it was Trae Young.
But this year, the gap between No. 1 and No. 7 is rather negligible. Duke's Vernon Carey Jr. is at least temporarily at the forefront of that pack, but it wouldn't take much—either in the form of a dud by him or an MVP performance by one of the many challengers—to change that.
In a way, that makes it more fun, though, doesn't it? Instead of getting sick of hearing about one guy's greatness on a nightly basis throughout January and February, we're going to be treated to a much wider range of player appreciation, possibly culminating in a photo finish for the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, etc.
For the time being, we've come up with a top eight for national player of the year (NPOY), plus eight honorable mentions breathing down that octet's neck.
Eight Honorable Mentions
Malachi Flynn, San Diego State—KJ Feagin was supposed to be San Diego State's star acquisition-via-transfer, but while Feagin (Santa Clara) has been a bust, this former Washington State guard has been phenomenal. Flynn is averaging 15.9 points and 5.0 assists per game for the undefeated Aztecs, and he has saved his best for the toughest opponents, thriving against BYU, Creighton, Iowa and Utah State.
Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State—The Cyclones lost to Florida A&M in a game that Haliburton missed. And in the first contest after that one, he had a triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) in a loss to TCU. He is this year's Ben Simmons, filling up the stat sheet for a team nowhere near the NCAA tournament conversation.
Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky—Maxey had 26 points against Michigan State, 27 against Louisville and went off for 17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and four blocks in Tuesday's come-from-behind win over Georgia. He has had more than his fair share of duds against lackluster competition—two points against Fairleigh Dickinson?!—but he has risen to the occasion in big moments. As Kentucky claws its way back into the Final Four conversation, Maxey becomes more of a threat for NPOY.
Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga—The Zags have seven guys averaging at least nine points per game, and that is going to make them difficult to knock out of the NCAA tournament. Petrusev is the leader of the pack in points, rebounds and blocks, though. You've got to put someone from the AP No. 1 team in the Player of the Year debate, and Petrusev is the obvious choice.
Myles Powell, Seton Hall—Between an ankle injury and a concussion, Powell has missed two games and sat out a significant portion of two others. That's more than a quarter of Seton Hall's season. But he has been so damn good when fully available that it was tempting to put him in our top eight. He has averaged 24.8 points in those 10 games.
Isaiah Stewart, Washington—It doesn't matter if the Huskies are facing Gonzaga or Maine, Stewart is racking up around 20 points and 10 rebounds in seemingly every game. He has tallied at least 18 points and eight rebounds in each of his last seven games. And he is contributing significantly to one of the best interior defenses in the country.
Austin Wiley, Auburn—Wiley reminds me of former Michigan State big man Nick Ward. He only plays 20 minutes per game, but he makes the most of them, averaging 10.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Samir Doughty is probably the more likely NPOY candidate from undefeated Auburn, but this dude is an absolute force in the paint.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State—Winston went off for 32 points and nine assists in a big win over Michigan this past Sunday—his fourth consecutive game with at least 21 points and six dimes. He dropped well off the NPOY radar with subpar performances in the losses to Virginia Tech and Duke, but he is storming back with a vengeance.
8. Luka Garza, Iowa
Season Stats: 22.1 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.2 APG, 34.2% 3PT, 0.276 WS/40
This is the first of two players in our top eight on a currently unranked team. Considering Iowa just lost to Nebraska on Tuesday, the Hawkeyes probably aren't going to be ranked again in the near future either.
But Luka Garza has been a man on a mission, pacing one of the most efficient offenses in the nation.
Iowa's big man had 17 points and 12 rebounds against an excellent Texas Tech defense back in November. The following week, he went for 23 and nine against Syracuse's 2-3 zone and then put up 44 points with no turnovers on the road against Michigan—in a game the Hawkeyes incredulously lost by a dozen. Garza also had 34 and 12 in the loss to Penn State, as well as 16 points and 18 rebounds against Nebraska.
Getting him the ball as often as possible is basically Iowa's offensive game plan.
Opponents know this—and know he rarely passes it out of the post—and typically collapse on him any time he touches the ball.
He still can't be stopped.
Unfortunately, the Iowa defense is a disaster, as it has been for several years now. As a result, Garza's herculean efforts are going largely unnoticed on a mediocre team. If the Hawkeyes had been able to win that game against Penn State last weekend, it would've given Garza's NPOY campaign a serious jolt.
Maybe they'll mess around and beat Maryland on Friday to help get this man the respect he deserves.
7. Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State
Season Stats: 14.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 BPG, 42.0% 3PT, 0.277 WS/40
Incredibly*, Kaleb Wesson was a solid candidate for NPOY at this time one year ago too.
During Ohio State's 12-2 start, he averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and was clearly the most valuable player for a team that was significantly better than expected. But right when his campaign was about to pick up steam, the Buckeyes lost to Rutgers, and Wesson had two points in the subsequent loss to Iowa.
Both he and the team sputtered for the majority of the next two months, though we did get a nice reminder of what Wesson could do when he had 21 points and 12 rebounds in a first-round upset of Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.
One thing hurting his case is he's not the type of guy to put up gargantuan numbers. He has only twice scored more than 18 in a game this season, and neither the 22-point effort against Wisconsin nor the 28-point game against Penn State was the type of unforgettable performance that it usually takes to get NPOY recognition. His career high in rebounds is only 13.
But Wesson makes up for it with his defense and his consistency.
Not only does he average roughly 15 and nine, but you also expect him to be right around those numbers every night. He's kind of a present-day Perry Ellis in that regard, but replace the jokes about spending 17 years in college with an impressive propensity for getting the opposing team's best big man into foul trouble. (Kentucky's Nick Richards was a non-factor against Ohio State because of that.)
If he/Ohio State can avoid another second-half meltdown this year—the current three-game losing streak isn't promising on that front—Wesson should be a finalist for whichever national player of the year award you prefer.
*I say "incredibly" not because Wesson is lacking in talent. He was a top-75 recruit who has been solid all three of his collegiate seasons. It's just incredible because guys with NPOY potential by early January generally don't return for another season.
6. Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Season Stats: 20.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 43.7% 3PT, 0.265 WS/40
If Jordan Nwora's first four ACC games in 2019-20 are any indication of what to expect from the next 16 (plus conference tournament), look out.
Between the season opener against Miami, the game against Pitt during that random ACC weekend in early December and the two games against Florida State and Miami thus far in January, Nwora has averaged 23.3 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 14-of-22 (63.6 percent) from three-point range.
Even though Louisville lost by 13 to Florida State, his 32 points and 10 rebounds were enough for KenPom.com to name him game MVP. You don't see that often.
In fact, he was the MVP for all four of those games, as well as four nonconference games, including the statement win over Michigan in early December. Only Washington's Isaiah Stewart (10) and Iowa's Luka Garza (nine) have earned more KenPom MVPs than Nwora—though he is tied with a bunch of guys at eight.
Across the board, Nwora is putting up numbers similar to the ones from last year that helped him earn first-team preseason AP All-American honors, but it's worth noting that he has improved as a shooter—both in efficiency and volume. His field-goal percentage has gone up from 44.6 to 48.7 while averaging nearly two more shots per game.
Those are the types of improvements that can elevate a guy from "great player" to "worthy of NPOY consideration."
We would slot Nwora a bit higher than this were it not for Duke's Vernon Carey Jr. somewhat running away with the early ACC POY award. When you're a distant second-best player in your own conference, it's hard to gain any traction as a potential national player of the year. But he'll get a head-to-head opportunity to change that Jan. 18.
If Louisville marches into Cameron Indoor Stadium and leaves with a W, Nwora probably becomes the new front-runner for the Wooden Award.
5. Markus Howard, Marquette
Season Stats: 26.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 44.5% 3PT, 0.261 WS/40
Markus Howard is going to test the limits of how much team success matters for an award that goes to an individual player.
Marquette is...OK. As things stand, it would probably make the NCAA tournament with a little room to spare. That at least puts Howard in better shape for NPOY than Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz in recent years.
However, the general line of thinking for these types of awards is the best player on one of the best teams, and Marquette isn't there. The Golden Eagles did score a pair of nice home wins over Purdue and Villanova, but they also got smashed by Creighton, Maryland and Wisconsin and just lost a home game to Providence. Not great.
But you know who was great?
He scored 39 of Marquette's 80 points against the Friars, even though every time he touched the ball, he was smothered and covered like Waffle House hash browns—or, you know, something about Culver's cheese curds if you require a more regionally appropriate restaurant reference.
The best part is that was only his third-highest scoring total of the season. He went for 40 and 51 on back-to-back nights against Davidson and USC in the Orlando Invitational. Howard also had 38 in the season opener against Loyola-Maryland and put up at least 30 against both Central Arkansas and North Dakota State.
He was already leading the nation in scoring prior to Tuesday night, and then he bumped his average up a full point.
Do yourself a favor and make plans to watch Saturday's game against Myles Powell and Seton Hall. That early head-to-head battle for Big East player supremacy will be a major factor in the NPOY debate.
4. Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Season Stats: 18.7 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 38.8% 3PT, 0.253 WS/40
Every year, there's a "fine wine" candidate for NPOY—someone who has been a starter for what feels like a decade and who is now playing his best basketball as the leader of a team at least on the fringe of the national championship conversation.
Last year, that guy was Ethan Happ. The year before that? Jevon Carter. Keep going back through recent history, and you'll find apropos names like Frank Mason, Malcolm Brogdon, Monte Morris and Denzel Valentine. Freshman phenoms like Zion Williamson and Trae Young draw in the casual/NBA fans, but those senior leaders are what make this game so great.
In the preseason, we all assumed this year's guy was going to be Cassius Winston, which made him the preseason favorite for NPOY. But while "Cash" is still in the running, Oregon's Payton Pritchard has been the best senior.
Since replacing Casey Benson in the starting lineup five games into the 2016-17 season, Pritchard has made 124 consecutive starts for the Ducks. On a roster loaded with talent—Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher were the stars back then—he settled into the role of a pass-first point guard who rarely drove the lane. He averaged 3.7 two-point attempts per 40 minutes as a freshman, as well as 5.1 assists.
Three years later, he's sitting at 9.2 and 6.9, respectively, as everything Oregon does runs through him. Pritchard has also been the Ducks' best on-ball defender and is surprisingly one of their top defensive rebounders at 6'2".
The longer Oregon remains in the Final Four conversation, the more legitimate his NPOY candidacy will become. Pritchard has already had a few great performances in big games—most notably in the road win over Michigan—and he could get a lot more national love if he beats up on Nico Mannion and Arizona on Thursday night.
3. Devon Dotson, Kansas
Season Stats: 18.5 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 30.9% 3PT, 0.253 WS/40
It's no coincidence that Kansas' two losses came in Devon Dotson's two worst games of the season. Like Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham before him, Dotson is the glue that holds the Jayhawks together, and they are much more prone to letdown games if he's struggling.
In the season opener against Duke, the sophomore point guard shot the ball fine, but he had six turnovers against just one assist and one steal. In all three categories, those are still tied for his season-worst marks. Kansas was a sloppy disaster as a result, committing 28 turnovers in a 68-66 loss.
In the 56-55 loss to Villanova, he at least had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (4-3), but he didn't shoot well (15 points on 15 field-goal attempts) and again had just one steal. Kansas led by four with 80 seconds remaining; however, in that crunch time, Dotson committed a turnover, missed the front end of a one-and-one and missed a jumper at the buzzer.
It's a shame those missteps came in two of Kansas' biggest resume-building opportunities, but we're still talking about a guy who has scored at least 13 points in every game, who has almost as many steals (31) as turnovers (34) and who plays more than 35 minutes per night.
That latter figure spikes to 38.8 minutes if we focus just on Kansas' six games against KenPom Top 40 opponents. One of those performances came against Dayton in the Maui Invitational championship when Dotson—playing in his third game in less than 48 hours—was out there for all 45 minutes of the overtime victory, racking up 31 points on 16 shots, six rebounds, five steals and four assists.
Buckle up for Saturday's home game against Baylor. The AP poll's No. 3 team is hosting its No. 4 team and is a colossal opportunity for making a statement. It was in a similar game around this time four years ago that Buddy Hield made the leap from "one of the NPOY candidates" to "clear-cut favorite."
2. Obi Toppin, Dayton
Season Stats: 19.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 35.9% 3PT, 0.291 WS/40
Obi Toppin is to 2019-20 what Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura was to 2018-19. He's an athletic force of nature who probably would have been a first-round pick had he declared at the end of last season. He instead he returned to his "mid-major" program and destroyed just about everything in his path in November and December.
One major difference in Toppin's favor, though, is that there's no equivalent to Brandon Clarke on Dayton's roster. Hachimura had to share the spotlight with a teammate and never clearly emerged as Gonzaga's best NPOY candidate, but there's no question that Toppin is the dude for the Flyers.
He scored at least 21 points in each of Dayton's first five games, and game No. 6—18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks against Kansas—could hardly be considered a dip in production. If you had to choose a favorite for national player of the year at the start of December, it was probably North Carolina's Cole Anthony at No. 1 and Toppin at No. 2.
Well, Anthony hasn't played in a month, and Toppin has continued to thrive, save for one inexplicable mediocre showing against Grambling State. He has just been leapfrogged by a different freshman phenom from Tobacco Road.
Toppin could absolutely win the Wooden Award, though. It has only gone to one non-major conference player in the past 14 years (BYU's Jimmer Fredette in 2010-11), but don't think for a second that playing in the Atlantic 10 is going to hurt his case—provided Dayton wins the vast majority of its conference games and remains a likely single-digit seed for the NCAA tournament. After all, Murray State's Ja Morant probably would have won it last year were it not for Zion Williamson.
1. Vernon Carey Jr., Duke
Season Stats: 18.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 0.355 WS/40
For a team that allegedly had no NBA lottery-bound talent at the start of the season, Vernon Carey Jr. has been some kind of special.
After Carey's so-so start in the first few games, his stock began to soar in the 2K Empire Classic at Duke's home away from home, Madison Square Garden.
First, he annihilated a helpless California frontcourt to the tune of 31 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in just 22 minutes. One night later against Georgetown, he was basically the only Blue Devil to show up in the first half, keeping his squad in a game it otherwise likely would have lost.
In the marquee road win over Michigan State in the ACC/B1G Challenge, Carey posted his seventh consecutive double-double (26 points, 11 rebounds). And it seemed like every time the Spartans threatened to make things interesting, Duke knew it was time to go back to the big man for a momentum-killing bucket.
There's still an argument to be made that Tre Jones is Duke's most important player, but this team could (and has) at least tread water with Jordan Goldwire running the offense. If Carey—who is leading the nation in win shares per 40 minutes by a wide margin—went missing, the Blue Devils would be up a creek without a paddle, liable to get devoured in the paint on a nightly basis.
As long as Carey stays healthy, Duke might be the top threat to win the national championship.